Few people can forget where they were on September 11, 2001. I was a 26 years old and a teacher at a high school in Weston. That morning I was in the media center of the school when Sonny, the director of maintenance, came in and announced the Twin Towers in New York City had been hit by a plane. We scrambled to find TVs and set them up so we could learn more about what was happening. We watched the events as they unfolded, including when the second plane hit the North Tower. At that point, the gravity of what was happening became evident. It was an event that Americans collectively experienced and an event that anyone who lived through it will never forget.
Tom “Bull” Hill, a legend in the world of firefighting in Florida, remembers exactly where he was and what he was doing on that fateful Tuesday. “On my days off in the fire department, I did years of cowboy work and construction. I was putting a roof on a horse stall in Groveland and we had the radio going. A guy had come out there to help me and we heard about the attack. I can remember just being crushed”.
As a professional who feels the need to help others in difficult situations, he ended up driving to New York a couple of weeks later. Under the sorrow of the moment – that still lasts – Bull realized it could have a positive side if he did what he was best at doing: helping others. But what he didn’t realize was the trauma being in New York would cause him: “I didn’t realize how much damage trauma can do to firefighters brain”, he shared. Being at ground zero impacted him deeply and indelibly forever. The wounds were so deep that he would come to realize it was a greater problem shared amongst firefighters. However, that is another story in and of itself, parts of which will come to light below.
Having gone through all this and having experienced the aftermath so personally, when the 20th anniversary of the tragedy came around last week, he was determined to do something to make sure we would really never forget the 343 firefighters that lost their lives in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
What do you call a Heroes’ hero? Some might say a superhero, but ask any Florida firefighter and they might say Bull. Tom “Bull” Hill, known by most as simply Bull, earned this bovine sobriquet in 1985 during his rookie year in the fire service. His superior noticed how he tore through walls like a bull during an overhaul and the name stuck.
Since then Bull has become a legend amongst firefighters because he has unequivocally distinguished himself as a Heroes’ Hero. Just like when he was tearing down those walls, he has been tireless and determined when lobbying for firefighters’ rights and bringing awareness to the two maladies that most plague the profession: Cancer and PTSD/suicide.
Three years ago Bull stood by and supported two Firehood* brothers as they fought a losing battle against cancer. As they lay near death, he promised them he would bring awareness to this deadly aspect of firefighting. Soon after he made good on his promise and rocked the world of firefighting when he started an awareness march from Key West to Tallahassee.
*The Firehood is the family of firefighters. Sam Eaton who accompanied Bull on his March of Remembrance, attributes the creation of the term to Bull himself.
"I would have never thought this was needed, but three years ago, I walked though Florida because two firefighters who passed away asked me to before they died. I had no clue what I was doing. And the amount of people that have reached out shows that there isn't enough stuff out there".
Sam Eaton, a retired battalion chief from Palm Beach County, who accompanied Bull on his 9/11 March of Remembrance, credits Bull with lighting the spark that led to changing the laws so that firefighters now have cancer coverage.
Eaton recounts how Bull’s determination was the key to making a difference:
He started in Key West by himself and basically very few people knew this guy. As he moved north from the keys, as he came into Miami, the Brotherhood embraced him and basically said, 'Yeah, we completely agree with you. Let's start walking!', and he walked the entire state, from Key West to Tallahassee. I think it was six weeks or something like that to accomplish this. Some families would come out and meet him along the road and say 'Take my son's badge, take my son's helmet shield, take my daughter's badge, take my son's ashes', and as he went up the state, he started with one pack, by the time he got into Tallahassee, I think there were up to seven full backpacks full of all of these momentous of firefighters that have fallen to cancer and some also to suicide. In Tallahassee, we walked into the Capitol with about close to 1000 firefighters, they shut the road down. And we walked into the Capitol together as a group just to just tell the legislators we deserve to be seen and recognized. And it was a very big visual, and the legislators took note of it. Shortly thereafter, after fighting for 16 years, we finally got cancer coverage. A lot of people worked on it to make that happen, but Bull's walk really brought it to light.
For the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Bull had originally intended to walk from Boston to ground zero to honor the fallen, but two weeks before he got COVID, which literally stopped him in his tracks. But the need to honor the fallen heroes kept nagging at him, and on the eve of September 11 he decided to contact FHP to ask for their permission to drive down the state placing the name of a fallen firefighter at each mile marker for 343 miles.
With a reputation that preceded him, he contacted FHP for their blessing and they extended it to him on one condition. The condition was that it was not to become a parade along the highway, but a low key March of Remembrance*. He was only to contact the local fire departments last minute when he was in the area. Bull agreed and the March (drive) was on!
He started by himself in Jacksonville on Sept. 11, 2021, but did not remain alone for long. Sam Eaton, a retired Palm Beach County Battalion Chief, soon joined him to help coordinate the effort with local fire departments.
*March of Remembrance is being used here as poetic license. Bull could not walk because he was still recovering from COVID so he drove the 343 miles.
When Eaton joined Bull, he called local fire departments to coordinate the logistics of the last-minute low key effort to remember the fallen. Eaton shares that fire chiefs were not too happy to get the last minute call that Bull was coming to town. But because it was Bull, any annoyance they may have felt, dissipated immediately and they rallied behind him, no questions asked.
Click on any of the images below to see the full photo gallery:
When Bull arrived in Palm Beach County, he and Eaton had made plans to meet with a firefighter, Dale O’Sullivan, who lost a cousin in 9/11. He and his sister came out to place their cousin name on the mile marker. It was about 3:30 when they got to the first mile marker in Palm Beach County and began discussing placing Firefighter Foley’ s name on the marker. When they were done talking and ready to place the flag, Bull handed O’Sullivan the flag and then checked his phone for the time and it was exactly 3:43 pm. Eaton described it as “a goosebump moment for everyone”.
When Oakland Park Fire Rescue heard that Bull was coming, they went out to meet him and support him as he passed through our City. Shannon Vezina, the Public Information Officer for the City also went there. She had lost a friend, a firefighter, on 9/11 and asked if his name had been put up yet. It had not.
She was going to do the honors, but a call came in and she had to head out with the Battalion Chief for OP Fire. The Oakland Park firefighters that remained at the scene did the honors and sent her pictures. So the name of the firefighter whose name is up on the Oakland Park mile maker has a personal connection to the City itself.
Bull started his journey on September 11 and finished 6 days later. Because he still felt exhausted from COVID, he took a few days off to rest. Firefighters to the Rescue lent a hand by putting him up in a hotel for two days. The rest was well worth it as he was able to do about 100 miles in one day toward the end. Eaton continued to coordinate the logistical efforts helping insure he made it to mile marker one.
When they placed the last name on mile marker one the magnitude of the loss hit Bull very hard. “There was that realization of the magnitude of the loss that was suffered that day. I was sad. For Sam, I felt bad for him because I had to drive him another hour and a half back. And he just wanted to talk. I couldn’t talk“.
When asked what he would do next, this humble hero of heroes responded as one with such a selfless soul and a big heart would: “I really want to come up with the reflectors or some kind of shield the put on mile markers throughout state, I think it would would help families heal“.
But that is not the only thing that Bull is doing for the Firehood. As expected from someone who earns a nickname because of their relentlessness and dogged determination he plans on working through his foundation to bring awareness to the cancer that is endemic to the fire service and the PTSD/suicide that plagues firefighters.
If you would like to support Bull and his efforts, his website FirehoodFoundation.org will soon be up and running. In the meantime you can reach out to Bull at [email protected] Other charities that support firefighters are Firefighters to the Rescue and Florida Firefighters Safety and Health Collaborative.
EDITOR, PUBLISHER, WRITER, PHOTOGRAPHER, REALTOR®
Désirée Ávila has called Oakland Park her home for over 33 years. In addition to publishing LivingInOaklandPark.com, Désirée has been featured in print publications, locally and abroad. Désirée was an award winning teacher for 10 years and has a doctoral level education in Educational Technology. She is currently a licensed Florida Realtor® and is committed to a high-level of professionalism.
Désirée consistently professionally develops herself and has earned several different professional designations and certifications in real estate including the PSA, e-Pro, AHWD, SRS, ABR, and SFR. She was also awarded the C2EX, Commitment to Excellence award by the National Association for Realtors (NAR). This award is given to Realtors® that distinguish themselves for their commitment to excellence in the real estate industry.
She is esteemed by her real estate colleagues and has consistently received 5 star reviews from her clients. Her philosophy about real estate is that being a Realtor® is a way of teaching and helping people, and in the process a real estate transaction may occur, that is to say her foremost priority is and has always been about helping others.
She is dedicated to her hometown of Oakland Park and works consistently on building and fostering a strong community. She is passionate about photography and loves to read books about history ; the more detail the better! In addition to English, Désirée is fluent in Portuguese, Spanish, French and Italian.
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